Never underestimate the danger associated with stream crossings! Alaskan waters are extremely cold, even when the air temperature is warm. Wilderness travellers manage risks during river crossings by using the Plan > Pick > Assess > Check method.
Plan . . . on making decisions you can live with. Spend time walking up and downstream in order to find a crossing site suitable for the entire group. Think about the crossing technique you'll use and who will do what, based on their experience and physical size (long legs and sure footedness are assets here). Plan on turning around, waiting it out or going elsewhere if the water's too high, too cold or too swift.
Pick . . . your time and place. Glacial streams can rise significantly within a few hours on warm sunny days or after heavy rains, making a slow stream an impassable torrent. Select a route through the widest channels or where there are many channels instead of just one. As water disperses it flows slower and becomes shallower. Glacial silt, carried in some rivers, prevents a clear view of the obstacles along the bottom, making things a bit harder yet.
Assess . . . the water's properties. Toss a stick in up stream to get a feel for the water's speed: the swifter the water the shallower it has to be to cross safely. The water surface is often a reflection of the stream's bottom: standing waves indicate swift water, an uneven bottom and depth. Crossing where there are small, closely spaced ripples should be indicative of a shallower, smoother bottom.
Check . . . your choice by throwing big rocks into the water. A hollow "ka-thump" sound indicates deep water. If the rock moves downstream before sinking to the bottom, or if submerged rocks can be heard rolling downstream, the current may be too swift to cross at that point. Look for another place to cross.
Finally, always include an option for a retreat back to shore should the crossing become too difficult. Never over-commit yourself to one route. Plan, pick, assess, check . . .
Before you cross, remember:
Seal all essential items, such as firestarter, dry clothing and sleeping bags, in watertight, plastic bags.
Keep your boots on! Do not cross barefoot or in socks alone! Shoes protect your feet from rocks, cold and decrease the likelihood of falling.
Release the waist and sternum belts of your pack. Should you fall, you must be able to jettison the pack before it turns you over, face down into the water, fills up with water and drags you down.
Look upstream! Keep your eyes on the far shore. You will become dizzy if you look down at the swirling water.
Solo crossings are not recommended; however, if you have no other options, cross downstream at an angle using a long, sturdy stick for support.
After you cross: congratulate yourself! Although an unbridged river presents many challenges, it is also part of true wilderness hiking.
Did You Know?
Willow ptarmigan, found across southwest Alaska, are white in the winter and brown in the summer. These notoriously slow birds need extra camouflage from predators!